DORSET >> The study is in. Now comes the hard part.
A lengthy report on the economics of Manchester, Manchester Village and Dorset is complete and was presented to an audience of more than 50 area residents at Long Trail School Thursday, Feb. 11. It looked at opportunities and problems, and prescribed a series of action steps to follow.
"The key to all of this is implementation," said Bill Colvin, the assistant director and community development coordinator for the Bennington County Regional Commission, which worked with a group of local residents and an outside consulting firm to prepare the study, which was about a year in the making. "How does this not end up being a binder on the shelf," is the next question, he added.
The report, called the Northshire Economic Development Strategy, or NEDS, outlines a series of hurdles the economy of the three municipalities need to overcome in conjunction with the broader Northshire region. Lack of affordable workforce housing — a shortfall of 200-400 units — was one that was featured prominently, and the aging of the workforce and general population was another.
More than 3,000 people work in one of the three communities studied, but live in one of the other communities surrounding them. They are effectively priced out of being able to purchase or rent living space because of high home costs, and the cost of constructing new housing, priced within a range workers, especially younger workers, can afford, is at the moment not a profitable enough venture for would-be home builders, according to the study.
High land and construction costs, along with a certain level of housing density to make it affordable, also means municipal infrastructure such as sewer and water lines need to be in place, said Dan Stevens of Camoin Associates, the Saratoga, N.Y.-based consulting group hired to assist with the study, which was funded through a grant from the state's Agency of commerce and Community Affairs with local matching money added in. There's a significant amount of unmet demand for housing in the $300,000 and under price range, he added.
Ideally, that housing would be within walking range of downtowns with their amenities, he said.
"People want to live where they can walk to shops and restaurants," he said. "Not only millennials, but older 'empty-nesters' who don't want to deal with the upkeep of a larger home."
With the over-arching project goal of creating a "vibrant environment that encourages people to live and work in the Northshire" in mind, the NEDS report also ticked off a series of strengths and opportunities present in the region that the authors of the study thought could be built upon. Strong local schools and arts and cultural venues, opportunities for outdoor recreation and a generally high perception of "quality of life" led the list.
One opportunity that might have surprised some who think Manchester is already fully saturated with retail establishments is the amount of "leakage," or sales captured by stores elsewhere, from local residents. The two most significant of these are general merchandise stores and food and drinking establishments; about 70,000 square feet of new retail space could be feasible in order to attract sales currently going elsewhere, the report states.
Another finding that surprised some was the lack of need for more office space. Shovel-ready industrial space was, however, in tight supply.
Taking the local strengths and opportunities to devise an action plan that overcomes the perceived weaknesses and threats was the focus of the second half of the roughly hour-long presentation.
Colvin recommended that the time was right for a more regional approach to economic development. He described that as the underlying theme going forward if the area was to avoid a slow-down in its economic growth. That growth was more likely to come through capitalizing upon and boosting assets that were already here, or had some connection to the area, rather than dangling incentives like tax breaks to lure existing businesses from elsewhere. This is a process known as "economic gardening," cultivating existing businesses and helping them grow or providing the tools for entrepreneurial start-ups, he said.
"What we're recognizing is that in small rural America, we're facing the same challenges — an aging population workforce and lack of population growth," he said. "We have tried to address these town by town but we would be better off trying to address them regionally.'
This was where the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce — soon to be rebranded as "The Partnership" — was well-suited to assist with, said Berta Maginniss, the chamber's executive director.
The Chamber/Partnership is hoping to secure funding from 18 area towns during Town Meetings to accompany donations and membership dues to enable it to boost its efforts at economic development and destination marketing, she said before the start of a question-and-answer period.
"These are very big issues," she said. "Everybody has a piece of this pie. If we don't all work together, it won't happen."
That point was reinforced by Manchester's Town Manager, John O'Keefe, in a comment after the presentation.
"We need to start thinking more regionally," he stated. "Economic development is not a one-man show. The economy is much larger, global in fact. That being said, we have taken some large steps recently, including this study with Dorset and the Village and the Public Safety Study... This all means compromise. We need to think like marketers and start to respond to the needs and wants of younger workers. We need to let our hair down, a little bit. The perfect example are the street fests. These events are very popular among our younger families. They also draw a lot of visitors from the neighboring towns."
O'Keefe also pointed to the efforts underway to rewrite the town's zoning ordinances and upgrade playing fields at the town's Rec park as examples of how initiatives are already underway to move forward to build on the area's assets to grow the local economy.
"With some additional investments, including some improved athletic fields, the Park is ripe for additional regional tournaments, which could be a large boost to lodging, shops and restaurants," he said. "Well-run tournaments can draw thousands of visitors to Manchester during the slower 'shoulder seasons'. The 2016 Town Meeting will consider whether to authorize $75,000 from the CIRC Fund for building new fields north of Applejack Field."
Cultivating the area's tourism, food arts and culture industries; supporting entrepreneurship and business development and enhancing the general quality of life for residents and workers were all part of the other broad goals.
To push this forward, the NEDS steering committee, a group of about 20 area residents will remain together, to meet occasionally and assist with coordinating the efforts of the municipalities, business groups and individuals, Colvin said.
"We think we've put together a really solid set of strategies that will move the economic condition of the Northshire forward," Colvin said during the presentation at Long Trail School. "It really means nothing unless we have a commitment for implementation from the parties that can actually do the work."
The entire NEDS report will be available this week on the BCRC website: